“Women and girls aren’t the problem, they are the solution,” according to Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, authors of Half the Sky. Aside from the human rights concerns associated with marginalizing women around the world, in countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, where half the population is treated as third class citizens, economic growth is severely hindered and societies are caught in a seemingly never-ending cycle of poverty.
Despite the enormous amount of aid that developing countries receive each year, most of these countries still have devastatingly low economic growth rates, and very little improvement occurs in the level of poverty. On the other hand, it has been found that certain aid—that which is given with a targeted purpose such as healthcare or education—has been extremely effective, particularly when it targets girls.
One theory behind this phenomenon is the way in which women and men are socialized. Women are taught to be caregivers and nurturers while men are driven to be the providers for their families. This translates into a competitive mindset that encourages men to be focused on their own advancement and spend their income on individual needs. Women, meanwhile, tend to be more community oriented, so when they have access to income they are many times more likely to reinvest it in the community by spending it on things such as health and education opportunities for their children. Barakat, along with a variety of other nongovernmental organizations, has recognized this untapped resource and works to empower women as a means to enable communities to shape their own future through education.
Despite the growing research on the importance of female empowerment and the potential role that women can play in breaking the cycle of poverty, 70% of the 77 million children globally who were out of school in 2004 are girls. According to the UNICEF Regional Office for South Asia, 11.5 million girls are out of school in this region of the world, compared with just five million boys. The United Nations Children’s Fund, the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative, the World Bank, and the United States Council on Foreign Relations have pinpointed five specific ways to increase enrollment, decrease dropout rates and improve performance for girls in schools worldwide:
1. Closer proximity of schools to girls’ homes
2. Greater community involvement to boost success rates and enrollment
3. Availability of water and sanitation
4. Food rations to increase enrollment
5. Incentives and scholarships
Barakat’s mission to strengthen the fundamental human rights to education in South and Central Asia focuses specifically on three of these methods—1, 2 and 5—in order to change the lives of women and girls through education.
1 and 2: The location of schools and lack of safe transport are obstacles that discourage parents from enrolling their daughters in school. The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission found that 51.6% of parents cited security and accessibility as the main reason they were hesitant to send their girls to school. Cultural concerns such as preservation of a girl’s honor is a major issue for parents and serves as a deterrent to enrolling girls in schools.
In response, Barakat has introduced literacy courses that are held in the home of a family in the neighborhood. The host family provides a safe and secure atmosphere for girls to focus on their studies without their parents worrying about their safety. As an incentive, Barakat provides host families with rent and cleaning funds to ensure that the literacy courses continue to run. The course curriculum mirrors that of government schools so that the students in our literacy courses receive the same education that students in formal schools receive.
In Pakistan, where Afghan refugees are even more conservative and wary of sending their daughters to school in a foreign country, Barakat offers evening schools specifically for girls that are staffed by female teachers.
5. There has been increasing research on the effectiveness of scholarship programs as incentives for girls to achieve greater educational gains. According to the Scientific Evaluation for Global Action (SEGA), performance incentives had a far greater impact than book donations, class size, and other factors. The study found that girls who were eligible for a scholarship showed significant gains in exam scores, attendance increased, and self-confidence was greatly improved.
Barakat began a scholarship program in April 2008 called Taqaza-e-Dukhtaran. The scholarship enables self-motivated teenage girls and young women with limited financial means to continue their education. In addition to paying for their education, Barakat offers the families of these young women a stipend to make up for the potential loss of labor that would occur while the girl is not contributing the family’s income. In this way, families become much more likely to support sending their daughters to school.
Barakat makes education accessible for girls so that they can be financially empowered, ensure sustainable livelihoods for themselves and their families, and contribute to ending the cycle of poverty in their communities.